Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Is Theology Nit-picking?

Basil the Great thinks not:

Those who are idle in the pursuit of righteousness count theological terminology as secondary, together with attempts to search out the hidden meaning in this phrase or that syllable, but those conscious of the goal of our calling realize that we are to become like God, as far as this is possible for human nature. But we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of Him, and without lessons there will be no knowledge. Instruction begins with the proper use of speech, and syllables and words are the elements of speech. Therefore to scrutinize syllables is not a superfluous task. Just because certain questions seem insignificant is no reason to ignore them. Hunting truth is no easy task; we must look everywhere for its tracks.

St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, translated and with an introduction by David Anderson. Poplar Patristics Series 5 (Crestwood, NT: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 1.2, p. 16

Basil was referring specifically to the use of prepositions in the doxology, but I think what he says about the need to press our theology in service of the truth can be further extrapolated.


  1. Who could argue with someone with so great a beard as Basil - or indeed so great a name?

    You go right on ahead and pick those nits, dude. :)

    But don't be *too* surprised if not every good brother and sister in the Lord shares your enthusiasm for the finer points of theological terminology and syntax... though of course I do ;)

    I think that searching for truth (theological or otherwise) can be a little like toshing for treasure. You might have to wade through a lot of crap to get to a nugget of something valuable. But the wading (aka nit-picking) is a necessary if unappealing part of the process.

    That said, there are also other valuable endeavours within the fold of faith, such as simply being nice to people who you'd rather push into the sewer you've just been toshing in.

    1. Well, yes . . . there are other valuable endeavours. But that's not to say that theology is unimportant, and the impression I get from a lot of people is that it is.

  2. No, it's not nit-picking to desire and seek Truth, but it does take a special kind of person to do it properly. It can end up being used as an excuse to elevate oneself, because by being 'right' I can say to myself that I'm better than others. Or it can turn into a thoroughly dry intellectualism that loses the threads of life and love and spirituality. Having said that, I have in latter years come to the conclusion that theology is *vital* and is too often overlooked by those who can't understand all the theological arguments (I phrased that politely, didn't I?). God gives us all different abilities and different desires, and this is supposed to be used to build one another up, not tear people down. My husband is like you: a theological truth-seeker, and since I have known him I have recognised my own arrogance in formerly rejecting the (sometimes minuscule) details of my faith, and have tried (am trying) to engage my intellect more when it comes to theology (and life in general). He has also learned from me to be more open to the spiritual aspects of our faith and to the unexplainable. I read books - and blogs - nowadays that I never would have before I met my husband. I find myself ignorant, and that's not a good state of affairs for someone with a God-given good brain.

    1. Can't - and won't! - disagree with any of that, Sandy. :)